The Simple Exercise That Busted My Stress & Boosted My Happiness

Reading time: 5 minutes



Have you guys ever had a Homer Simpson ‘Doh!’ moment? Where you were looking at the answer to a particular question and you were racking your brain to figure it out? Only for a friend/colleague to come along and in literally 5 seconds, points out the solution that has been staring you in the face all along? All you can do is slap your head in disgust & laugh it off-feeling silly for not being able to figure it out…

As I mentioned in my previous blog post as I have been learning to code, I’ve hit what Seth Godin called ‘The Dip’, the slump between being a beginner and becoming a master when learning a new skill and I had to develop a number of new strategies to help me power through.

As well as being in my current profession as a teacher, learning to code and (trying to) have a personal life, everything has been… overwhelming. I’ve been feeling a little stressed as a result. Realising that stress and anxiety are not only a danger to effective learning but can harm my mental health, I started googling looking for solutions. There had to be a better way…

The ‘Don’t’ List

Eventually I came across the videos and books of craniosacral therapist and author Julian Cowan Hill who in his writings spoke about the ‘better/worse list’. In the following weeks, I found that Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey used a similar method he called the ‘Daily Note’. For simplicity, I call it the ‘Don’t List’.

It’s incredibly simple. All you do is grab a blank sheet of paper (or use the an ‘note’ feature in your smartphone) and create 2 columns: DO & DON’T. Now over the course of a week when you are at home or work, study the things that you do over the course of the day and add it to the list.

The items that you would add to the DO column would be things like:

  • Whenever you do things that you find enjoyable 
  • Things that put you in a ‘flow’ state (aka ‘the zone’ – doing a task where you are so engrossed in the task that everything around you fades away and you lose track of time)
  • When you do things that make you feel energised
  • When you speak to people that make you feel good
  • Anything that puts you in a positive state of mind.

The items that you would add to the DON’T column would be things like:

  • Things that stress you out or make you anxious
  • Things that are repetitive and boring
  • Things that are mentally or physical draining
  • Whenever you talk to people that make you feel negative etc.

Here’s a sample of my list (names have been changed to protect the innocent)

Do (Positive)

  • Computer Games
  • Tai Chi
  • Writing my blog
  • Taking a walk & listening to music
  • Talking to good friends
  • Thinking about business ideas
  • Teaching
  • Planning lessons
  • Coding
  • Organising debates for the class
  • Being present in the moment
  • Working with Sam/Michelle/Jamie

Don’t (negative)

  • Hearing gossip/office politics
  • Lacking sleep
  • Over doing things
  • Hearing bad news
  • Having a cold
  • Dealing with Sarah
  • Marking
  • Information overload/over-complicated tasks for no reason
  • Pointless meetings
  • Rushing around
  • Coffee
  • Eating a heavy lunch (makes me drowsy)

When I first saw the exercise, I thought “yeah right buddy – that’s not going to help me!” But I didn’t have anything to lose and tried it for a week… then 2 weeks… then 3… and over 2 months later I’m still adding to it! There’s a 4 interesting patterns that came out of this exercise 

1) The DO column showed me where my strengths were

I love teaching and communicating so it didn’t surprise me that teaching and writing this came up as one of the things I enjoyed the most. Writing this blog is something that I love to do & I have loved to write since I was a wee lad.

2) The DO column taught me things that I didn’t know about myself

But there things that did surprise me that kept appearing: planning lessons and discussing ideas for the college are almost the opposite of talking to a group of rowdy kids but I found it fascinating & enjoyed brainstorming with others.

3) The DON’T column showed me that effect of dealing with negative people 

I hate mind games & office one-upsmanship with an absolute passion. At work, there were people who because of gossip and their passive aggressive movements that left me feeling frustrated and drained. Don’t get me wrong, no one is perfect and we all have rough days, but when you are dealing with people that are always negative they tend to put you in a negative headspace.

4) The DON’T column showed me how food and lack of exercise had a major effect on my mood

I used to be a massive coffee head, especially when facing a rough Monday morning. But after the initial ‘high’, the ‘caffeine crash’ would leave me feeling stressed, irritable and anxious. So what did I do to combat this effect? Drink more coffee and the cycle would repeat. Eating a heavy lunch made me sleepy and sluggish which hurt my work performance

 I found that the opposite was true when I practiced Tai Chi and had  Green Tea – doing Tai Chi and going for a walk made me feel more grounded & in control and gave me the a ‘high’ that did not send my energy crashing to the ground.

Although the main reason why I started this list was to ease work stress, I found the results so revelatory that I applied to every area of my life. Here’s 2 things you do once you got a good block of stuff on your list.

Do more in the DO list

One of the things that I realised that made the positive difference to my life was talking to my close friends. But because of my hectic life I let that fall by the wayside and although I was getting more done professionally, I felt empty and generally unhappy.

After noticing this on my DON’T list I made a deliberate effort to put in a call at least once a week and all the positive energy and clarity I got spilled into every area in my life. I used to think that all the different parts of my life were separate & they had no real effect on the others – how wrong I was. Make sure you try to do things that enrich & fulfill you. This will give you the energy to face the speed-bumps of life.

Minimise the things in the DON’T column

I know this list is not perfect. If you have a nightmare boss or an annoying colleague, you can’t exactly just tell them to throw themselves in the ocean. But you have a lot more power than you think. For example, I realised that certain people and situations made me unhappy so I tried to minimise my time with them as I could, stopped the gossiping and complaining & this generally made me feel happier at work. 


If this is your boss, good luck trying to get away from them…

Another thing that kept on cropping up was a colleague would send me over complicated reports that I didn’t understand & I had to muddle through to get the info that will let me complete my work. From my list, I realised that I could do 2 things:

  • I asked for her to send me a brief summary highlighting the main parts of the report 
  • If she sent them over & when they were vital to complete my daily tasks, I would politely tell her that I couldn’t complete it then and schedule a better time to do it.

This immediately freed up my time & I felt less frustrated – what a relief!

To-Do lists are not complete

When I initially started this list, part of me thought that it wouldn’t work because it was too simple and too obvious to make a real change in my life. But that’s the beauty of it. What I starting to realise that the simpler the method is, the less likely that it can go wrong.

The problem I found with a lot Personal Development books is that most of them talk about doing more: working harder, stronger, faster, longer – but I realised doing more doesn’t mean that you getting the important stuff done. The beauty of this list is that it brings a mindfulness to your life and from there you can make better decisions.

I double/triple/quadruple dare you to try this – what have you got to lose? Try it for a week & I put my life savings on it you will be shocked at what you see!

Let me know how you get on in the comments below or tweet at me @karlwebdev – I would love to hear from you!

Thank you for reading & see you next Thursday!



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